In this column it is sometimes necessary to raise issues that others are reluctant to discuss, and many reluctant to hear. It is our conviction that knowledge is superior to ignorance and always preferable to it, and that an informed public is better able to decide its future than one kept in ignorance. It is necessary now to move into an area that is threatening to become a quicksand of Karbala’i proportions for the global Islamic movement and its constituent local movements, particularly in Iraq. This is the poison of nationalism and intra-Muslim conflict that is being injected into Iraq’s political culture even as many Iraqis look forward to trying to use the country’s new political institutions to pursue objectives very different from those planned by the institutions’ designers.
An example of this poison was shown by Hazem al-Sha’lan, defence minister in the transitional regime of Ayad ‘Allawi and co. This minister, a former exile who returned to Iraq in the belly of the Anglo-American military beast, launched an inflammatory diatribe against those Shi’as whom he regards as agents of Iran or loyal to the Islamic State of Iran. He particularly attacked Shi’i ulama and activists in Iraq who he fears will be able to build bridges with Islamic Iran. Similar concerns have been voiced by others inIraq’s new political elite, including Ayad ‘Allawi himself, Muwaffaq al-Rabi’i and other American “agents-for-hire”. It is now becoming clear that the Shi’i house is beginning split into its two historical components, which Dr Ali Shari’ati memorably characterised as the tashayyu’ safavi and tashuyyu’ Alavi. In English, these are usually translated as Safavid Shi’ism – the quietist and politically subservient Shi’ism influenced by Safavid political power, sometimes compared to the apolitical version of Islam that emerged among Sunnis under the Ummayad and Abbasid khulafa’ – and Alavi Shi’ism, the energetic and active Islam demonstrated by Ali ibn Abi Talib (ra).
The unfortunate fact is that, within the Shi’i house, there is a political trend that has rationalized for itself, and is now trying to rationalize for the Iraqi people, either the “legitimacy” of the political, governmental and military institutions sponsored by the Anglo-American occupation, or at least the pragmatic argument that it is acceptable, in the absence of any alternative, to work through Iraq’s new institutions. This trend is shaping up to become a safavi ‘Trojan horse’ that will seriously undermine the Iraqi fortress. In the short term this approach, which some may consider opportunist or even Machiavellian, might achieve a few apparent successes; there are nearly 200,000 foreign troops and civilian consultants and experts in the country, about $6 billion flowing into Iraq every month, and a great deal of work to be done to repair the damage done by two generations of Ba’athist rule and two years of American occupation. Those who choose to work in the new system will be able to access these resources and do some of the work Iraq so desperately needs.
However, these “safavis” have based their whole programme on a stupendous misreading of the Iraqi situation and the US. They are ignoring a half-century of dealings between Baghdad and Washington, and the fact that it was the US itself that sponsored totalitarianism in Iraq, supported anti-democratic regimes there, sustained the Ba’ath party and Saddam Husain in power, encouraged him to suppress all popular opposition, and enabled him to launch wars against the Kurds within Iraq and then the new Islamic state in Iran. If the lessons of this recent history are ignored, there may be a certain logic to the safavids’ approach; but the history is before us and its lessons are clear. The conclusion is inescapable: that everything happening in Iraq now is designed to serve the interests of Washington, not Iraqis, and that those Iraqis who compromise to work within the new systems will out-live their utility to Iraq’s real masters long before they achieve their own long-term objectives.
Sha’lan and his circle of pro-Americans had to have had clearance from Washington to launch political attacks on the Shi’i hawzahestablishment, to the extent of accusing the marja’iyat (leadership) in Najaf of being agents of Iran. It was, after all, the Americans who brought Sha’lan, along with Abd al-Majid al-Kho’i (the son of the late grand Ayatullah al-Kho’i) to al-Nasiriyah at the beginning of the war in March 2003. It was at the Americans’ initiative that Sha’lan, formerly living in London, was appointed the new governor of the state of Diwaniyah, while Abd al-Majid al-Kho’i was sent to Najaf, where he was killed in circumstances that remain unclear, but apparently by Iraqis who were angry with him because of his acquiescence in the American invasion and occupation of their country.
Alongside that safavid trend is an Alavi current based inside the hawzah. This appears to be located within the masses of people who identify with al-Majlis al-A’la (the Supreme Council), Munadh-dhammat al-’Amal al-Islami and Hizb al-Da’wah. There are other, smaller Islamic groups that report to the hawzah who are not happy about the American-Iraqi alliance and who share – in principle at least – the popular pulse of opposition. The dominant Shi’i position, however, is represented by Ayatullah Sistani, who appears to have achieved a somewhat paradoxical position, having tacitly endorsed participation in the elections, and so seeming to the US to be a legitimating force for its plans, while also providing a unifying symbol for those within Iraq who maintain an anti-American position.
As this column is written, the Iraqi elections are approaching. It is clear that this election with be no more genuine than the American presidential elections last November. The neo-safavis will probably gain the lion’s share of offices and positions, and the rest of the people will retreat into defensive positions and a new phase of passive resistance, while they wait to see how events develop. The tacit opposition to occupation within the hawzah will have gone unnoticed, overshadowed by the apparent endorsement of the political process. The safavi camp will consolidate its positions on the basis of the mandate it will claim because of the “legitimacy” of the elections, hoping that this will gloss over its true power base: the military and political forces of the American occupation. Meanwhile, outside Iraq, there will be little sense of the complexities of these politics within the Shi’i community; the general perception will be of Iraqi Shi’as having accepted the new institutions.
The Alavi Shi’i position in Iraq has been based on the conventional wisdom that, in terms of resources and forces, Islamic Iran cannot compete for influence in Iraq with the US. It is this assumption that has caused the freedom-loving and justice-centered Alavi Shi’as to make at least two serious mistakes. The first is to assume that they can undermine their neo-safavi rivals by taking them on in terms of the American/Israeli political game. This has resulted in many ordinary Iraqis being unable to distinguish between pro-American Shi’as and anti-American Shi’as; when prominent members of Hizb al-Da’wah, and al-Majlis al-A’la hold political offices, carry political portfolios, and move up the military ranks in a US-supervised government, the distinctions between pro-American and anti-American Shi’as becomes academic.
The second mistake is the reaction of the Iraqi Shi’i community when Muqtada al-Sadr set out to live up to the ideals and ambitions of Imam Ali and Imam Hussain(ra). History may one day record that it was the opposition to this brave young alim within the Shi’i community that forced him to step back from what appeared to have the potential to become a civil war among the Shi’as. Part of the tragedy of Iraq is that the government in Iran has sided with the neo-safavi clique against Muqtada al-Sadr and against the spirit and purpose of tashayyu’ Alavi: a quite remarkable diplomatic achievement for the secular safavis. The safavi-American connection is so strong that Iraqi government propaganda has carried the day, labelling the forces of Muqtada al-Sadr a hodge-podge of former Ba’athists and other malcontents, when in fact they consisted of young ulama and poor, displaced Iraqi peasants, laborers, and discharged military personnel.
When Muqtada al-Sadr and his forces accepted the advice of other Shi’as to lay down their arms, the neo-safavis seized the opportunity to press ahead with their American/Israeli-inspired masterplan. Like the childish politicians they are, they have been riding the American/Israeli current, kidding themselves that they are the pioneers of democracy in the “New American Century”. They lack the rudimentary political insight and understanding that even a slight understanding of the US’s role would give them. The US and its Western allies do not care one little bit about democracy and elections in Iraq or any other Muslim country; the only thing they care about is their own national interests.
Some of these “safavis” think that the world has changed since Imam Khomeini (ra) returned to Iran from exile 26 years ago; they think the arrogant powers have become malleable and that they understand the US better than other Muslims and oppressed peoples in the world. They are wrong. The world has indeed changed, but not in the way they think. The US’s actions prove that it has become more hostile, not less, towards the Muslims and the rest of the oppressed of the world, even as they are increasingly vocal in proclaiming themselves the champions of the oppressed. If the US is busy manipulating the Shi’as, as is so clearly the case in Iraq, and if officials in Tehran are so intoxicated by political and diplomatic games that they think they can sweet-talk the US into an understanding of a national Iran and its role in the region, Muslims must be concerned that these naive and over-optimistic dreamers will only wake up to reality when the fire that is burning in Iraq moves into Iran.
There are ancient ghosts buried in the history of Iraq: the ghosts of Arab, Persian and Kurdish nationalism, of Sunni and Shi’i sectarian passions, even of a shu’ubi (tribalistic) sentiment. The great shaytan now in Iraq with military strength and devious political plans can stir most forces to serve its ends. We Muslims must be aware of the beguiling and seductive traps it sets. TheUS has come into Iraq as part of a longer-term enterprise, concerned as much with the interests of Israel as of the capitalist elites of the West. But these selfish and manipulative game-players do not understand that their key allies, the safavis and the salafis in Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, cannot forever suppress the currents of revolutionary Islam, which will eventually bring out the best in the Shi’as and Sunnis alike. The short-term prospects may look bleak, but the long-term outlook is promising.
The Islamic Uprising in Iran a quarter of a century ago is too important and too special for Muslims to simply watch it wander from its original and true course. We remember all too clearly the impact this breakthrough had on Muslims everywhere. For the first time in modern history, Muslims had risen against a corrupt government and its imperialist and zionist sponsors, and were able to take control of their own country, and begin to show the rest of us how things should be done.
Of course, the road forward was not likely to be smooth. The sponsors of the Pahlavi regime could not be expected to sit and watch a people shape their own future on the basis of their Islamic faith and commitment. Throughout the last 25 years, America and Israel have been working to bring the Islamic government in Iran to its knees, with the support of their Western allies, Iran’s pro-Western neighbours and even supporters within Iran. Iran’s borders amount to some 8,000 kilometers; American troops are now based across six thousand kilometers of this border. This grim scenario has been gradually built over 25 years, and has passed almost unnoticed by most Muslims, and even most Iranians. There has never been any cessation of hostilities between the followers of the line of Imam Khomeini (r.a.), who refuse to compromise when it comes to the independence and sovereignty of the Islamic state, and the numerous other interests wanting to shape the state on their terms.
Part of our object in this new column is to look at some of the gaps that have developed since the passing of Imam Khomeini (r.a.), many of which are rooted in earlier events, and how these gaps have caused serious problems about which we can no longer remain silent. But before we walk into this sensitive area, one point needs to be made absolutely clear. This is that none of the points we make are intended to express any criticism of Imam Sayyid Ali Khamenei, the successor to Imam Khomeini (r.a.) as Rahbar of the Islamic State. Many of the points we make will be highlighting natural processes in the evolution of post-Revolutionary state and society. Others will indeed involve criticism of errors and failures in Iran, mainly on the part of those who have been responsible for aspects of Iranian government and policy at the executive level. It was inevitable that such errors and failures should emerge over a quarter of a century in an unprecedented and highly-pressured historical situation; unfortunately they have contributed greatly to what many now see as the Islamic experiment’s current stagnation.
Sometimes frank statements of truth can be bitter pills to swallow; we hope no-one will consider this column to be too bitter a pill. We say what we say only to express our honest understanding of the issues. If we are correct, we appeal earnestly to Allah to accept our humble words to our humble readers. If not, we request Allah’s forgiveness and correction from anyone able to do so; without, we hope, descending into personal issues or hidden agendas. Ameen.